Monday, December 10, 2012

Overwhelmed oilman

The BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill is one of the largest environmental disaster to occur in U.S. history. If I asked each one of you what you remember most about the whole situation I think a few of you at least would answer with one of Tony Hayward's upsetting statements.

Tony Hayward, the former CEO of BP.

Here are some of the more well-known: "I'd like my life back;" "The impact to the environment is very, very, modest;" "The ocean is big;" and "It's America– of course there will be illegitimate claims." Most of these outrageous statements were filmed and can be found on YouTube - go HERE

The sad part of these statements is that they got Americans to hate Tony Hayward instead of uniting the country to work to stop the oil spill. 

In the research paper I wrote as the culmination of the Advance Science Communication course, I examine Tony Hayward's character during the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster. 

Now how do you analyze someone's character? Well, you use rhetorical analysis. No, not the same as rhetorical questions. Rhetoric refers to the type of words, tone, structure, and meaning used when speaking or writing. It's sort of like what your English teacher made you do with Shakespeare's sonnets. (Oh memories of high school English!)

Oh yes, I did. Mr. Ford's 2006 AP English class. Check out the girl in the gray sweater! (This is an earlier Christmas present for you, readers.)
I read articles from The New York Times and The Washington Post about Hayward really focusing on word choice and actions that suggested a certain type of role. What I found was that Hayward's character changed from before, during, and after the oil spill. 

Before the spill, Hayward took on the role of a reformer. He became CEO in 2007 and started to changes things up. His goal was to improve safety and he did so by instituting changes.

During the spill, Hayward was at first a strong leader. He spoke confidently and assured the American public that things were under control. The problem was they weren't under control and after awhile Hayward turned into an overwhelmed oilman. That's when it went downhill for him. Soon after utter some of those saying I listed above Hayward was out of a job. Good thing too because he made it harder for America to clean up and move on. 

What's Hayward up to nowadays? Well, he's back in the oil business - a much riskier, small oil business. Really nothing has changed. Hayward's still the leader of an oil company but now he's trying to redeem himself by playing a more challenging game. 

Why do we care about Hayward's character? Well, it says a lot about how industry treats communication. Without good communication, the information from authorities won't be trusted and the we have a much harder time figuring out what is correct. We hope that understanding the typical roles a CEO spokesman falls into may us figure out who to trust. This story also highlights that people should be held accountable for their communication choices. But how do you hold a CEO accountable? I have no idea. 

I think a great start is to teach young scientists and engineers about good communication. Any Mines students out there - take Advanced Science Communication (LAIS 423/523)!!! You will enjoy it (no, long essay for undergrads). I also think it is my job to take what I know about communication and share it within industry. But these are just my thoughts. What other solutions do you guys think are out there? 

Thanks for tuning in!

Monday, November 26, 2012

Science and play

Anyone who made it through high school knows that science can get boring. There are so many rules and processes that must be completed to discover anything. It's not surprising then that U.S. students were ranked 25th in math and 17th in science in a study of 31 countries. As a fan of math and science, I find this really sad. I was fortunate enough to have the right people to show me the fun in math and science. A big question that needs to be answered is: how can we get more students involved and excited about math and science? I certainly don't have the answer but check out the TED video shown below.

Beau Lotto took a simple idea about play and turned it into a serious scientific study completed by 25 8 to 10-year-olds. I'll let the video tell you more. Here's a link to the video on the TED site.

I like how Beau Lotto takes a completely out-of-the-box approach to science. It's refreshing and funny. This video inspires me to get out there and help inspire kids to play with science!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Geologist jokes

There's an old joke that goes something like this (depending who's telling it): There is a geologist, geophysicist, and a petroleum engineer in a room with their boss. The boss asks, "What’s 2 times 2?"  The geologist thinks for a while says “well it’s probably more than 3 and less than 5″. The geophysicist punches it into his calculator and answers that it’s 3.999999. The petroleum engineer gets up, locks the door, pulls the curtains, unplugs the phone and says, “What do you want it to be?”
(Sometimes its the geophysicist answering with what the petroleum engineer says - only if its a geologist telling the joke!)

There's also this great Calvin & Hobbes cartoon:
Calvin thinking of the least mathematical job.
Its fun to poke at other fields and get a good laugh. The sad part is that some of this is true. Geologist depend on visual cues and mostly descriptive language. Geophysicists rely on physics and talk in equations and math. When geologists and geophysicists have to communicate with each other it can be difficult because no one understands what the other one means. And terms are not defined the same in each field. Example: a thrust fault in geology is a reverse fault that has an angle less than 30 degrees but geophysicists use the term thrust fault to describe any reverse fault!

I am experiencing this currently because I am taking a structural geology class. It's almost the end of the semester and I think we've learned less than 10 equations! We have learned over 100 definitions of different rock types and structures. For example, a fold, a rock layer that has been bent or buckled, can be described by 3 different classes of bend, 5 different classes of angle, and about 10 different shapes! Which ones a particular fold falls into is sometimes up to interpretation. As a mathematically minded person, I find the descriptive terms frustrating!

An example of chevron folds.
Geologists and geophysicist need to be able to communicate with each other. Any project focused on finding oil on land or in the sea will need both a geophysicist and a geologist to make it successful (and yes, a petroleum engineer too). As Misac, one of our geophysics professors says, "You can't do geophysics without geology!" 

So for myself and other geophysicists, I think we need to be flexible with different "languages". Get comfortable with adapting to someone else's view. The structural geology class has definitely pushed me out of my comfort zone and I needed it! The amazing thing is that this lesson is exactly the same for communicating with the public! Scientists need to learn the "language" of people who don't do research every day.

There will always be jokes but hopefully we can start useful conversations too!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Elections & earthquakes

There is a man who has correctly predicted the outcome of the last 8 presidential elections. He said Obama would win a second term a year before Mitt Romney was chosen to be his opponent! This man is Allan Lichtman, a professor at American University. Now you are probably thinking he's using some complicated method based on political strategies. That is not the case. Lichtman based his predictive method on geophysics! Listen to the NPR article HERE.

Who win the next presidential election? Ask Allan Lichtman!
More specifically Lichtman thinks of election as geophysicists think of earthquakes. Lichtman says:
"Everything we know about elections, we've already stolen from geophysics.Tremors of political change, seismic movements of the voters, volcanic elections, political earthquakes. It's all geophysics anyway."
The basics of Lichtman's method is decide if the election will be stable or if there will be upheaval. This is a principle of earthquakes. For elections, Lichtman defines stability as the incumbent party stays in the White House. Upheaval is when the incumbent loses.

After reviewing past elections, Lichtman defined 13 key questions (which he wrote about in his book The Keys to the White House). If the six or more questions went against the incumbent party then he predicted upheaval. Obama only had three strikes with the economy, low approval ratings, and the poor  results for his party in the midterm elections.

Now you might wonder why we can't predict earthquakes with as much accuracy as Lichtman with elections. Well, it is a simple fact that earthquakes are much more complex than political elections. We can characterize the forces and geologic structure but the exact time it will occur is impossible. The USGS (US Geological Survey) is in charge of monitoring seismic activity over the whole nation. The best warning system we have right now is the Earthquake Early Warning system. It works by detecting the first rumbles of the earthquake and sending a message to the city before the destructive energy arrives. The waves travel at 2 miles per second so if the earthquake is 20 miles away it gives a 10 second warning. Not much but maybe enough for people to run to a safe location.

Example of the Early Earthquake Warning system.

It is interesting that principles of geophysics which characterize movements of the earth can be used to so accurately predict election outcomes. I guess it shows that laws of nature rule even at the human level!

Friday, November 9, 2012

When things go wrong . . . Part 3

This is the final post in the "When things go wrong series . . ." Click to see Part 1 and Part 2

Italian Scientists Found Guilty

WHAT: On April 6th, 2009, there was a 6.3 magnitude earthquake in L’Aquila, Italy. The region has a long history of earthquakes and the citizens of L’Aquila usually sleep outside during times when there are small tremors. However, for this earthquake people stayed inside and 309 people died. The community had heard reports from the nation’s scientists that it was unlikely a large earthquake would occur. Six Italian scientists and one ex-governmental official were put on trial and recently found guilty of manslaughter. All of them were from the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks.

Read the BBC’s coverage of the story HERE

WHERE: L’Aquila, Italy, a town located in a fault rich area of Italy.

The location of the 6.3 earthquake that hit Italy in 2009.

Damage of homes in L'Aquila, Italy.
HOW: There were tremors occurring in L’Aquila and the citizens were becoming concerned that a large earthquake could be coming. The National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks calmed the citizens down by stating that it was unlikely that a large earthquake could strike. Because of the advice of the Commission many residents stayed in the area and in their homes.

WHY: This is an important case because it is putting the communication of science on trial. There is no way to accurately predict a major earthquake but the geophysicists failed to communicate that effectively to the people of L’Aquila. The people believed that there was no risk because the scientists said an earthquake was unlikely. The scientists knew that there was still a chance that a large earthquake could occur but wanted to calm the citizens.

WHO: This story is very sad and unfortunate. I think many people, especially the survivors in L’Aquila, are trying to find the people they should blame. Who should be held responsible for the deaths? The court has ruled that the scientists did hold some of that responsibility (although the decision is being appealed). For me, it seems clear that the seven people from the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks failed at their job. The main failure is the lack of risk communication. None of the citizens of L’Aquila should ever have heard a message of stay inside. This story shows how critical it is that scientists be able to communicate with the public without just dumbing down the science.

Do you think the scientists are guilty? Who is to blame? What should the Italian government do to avoid another tragedy like the L’Aquila earthquake?

This concludes the "When things go wrong . . ." series. Let me know if you would be interested in hearing about a particular subject in geophysics. Thanks for reading!

Thursday, November 8, 2012

When things go wrong . . . Part 2

This is Part 2 of “When things go wrong . . . “. If you missed Part 1 click here.

Water Contamination in Pavillion, WY

This is the story of water contamination in the small town of Pavillion, WY thought to come from hydraulic fracturing. The EPA has been studying the area for about 3 years and released a draft of their results at the end of 2011. The gas industry responded by questioning the results.

There are some great petroleum engineer students in our class that did a nice summary on the events and concerns in Pavillion, WY. Being petroleum engineer students, they understand the mechanical working of fracking much better than I do. Check out their posts on the topic: What was going on in Pavillion, WY and More on Pavillion, WY.

I’m going to look at the controversy from a different perspective and take a step back from the technical problems to look at the broader issues. But first, a summary of the events:

WHAT: Possible drinking water contamination in a town that had producing gas wells that had been hydraulically fractured. The EPA composed a draft of their investigation that was released for public comments on December 8, 2011.

WHERE: Pavillion, WY, a small town of less than 300 people in the western half of Wyoming

The sign marking the entrance into Pavillion, WY.

A Pavillion, WY resident standing in front of a natural gas storage tank.

HOW: As the petroleum engineers explain in their blog posts Pavillion, WY is a special case. The wells are very shallow (~300m) and it is extremely uncommon to preform hydraulic fracturing that shallow. The EPA has confirmed that open pits of flowback (fracking fluid that comes back up out of the well) definitely contributed to shallow aquifer contamination but the deeper contamination is much more complex and does not have as clear of a connection to fracking. There is evidence that fracking did play a role in the contamination that occurred at a deeper level. To read the full EPA report go HERE.

WHY: There have been other situations where a fault in a well (poor construction usually) has led to contamination. The situation in Pavillion, WY was a big deal because it occurred at a time when fracking was a hot issue. There were many fears from the public that fracking could contaminate drinking water but there was no proof. Pavillion, WY was the first real indication that hydraulic fracturing had possibly caused contamination. The questioning of the results by industry only added to the controversy around fracking.

WHO: The case of water contamination in Pavillion, WY is important for scientists. The main lesson to learn is that the context matters. The subject of hydraulic fracturing was already a big issue when the EPA reported its results. Thus the results of an EPA study that might not have received any media attention previously was in the news for weeks. The history and background of a topic, issue, tool, whatever matter. In research, we usually conduct a literature review to summarize previous treatment of the method or topic. When communicating in the public sphere, scientist need to take the same action. Scientists need to take a moment to understand what's going on from a perspective different from their own.

What do you think of the situation at Pavillion, WY? What do think is the main message for scientists? For society?

Tomorrow I'm moving away from the energy issues in America to earthquakes in Italy. Stay tuned! 

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

When things go wrong . . . Part 1

 Geophysics is exciting, interesting, and useful – most of the time. Geophysicists (me included) focus on how to make images sharper, seismic records clearer, and inversions run better. We forget how our field interacts with society – especially when something goes wrong.

Now geophysics usually is not a cause of controversy. But because geophysics is involved in the industries where disasters occur, we are grouped with those industries when the finger pointing starts. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing. We should be held accountable for the work we do and understand how that work helps make decisions.

I am going to do a mini-series on three different controversies that involve geophysics in one way or another. Today I’m going to talk about the BP Macondo well disaster. Tomorrow we’ll explore what happened in Pavillion, WY. And Friday we’ll investigate why six Italian scientists might be headed to jail. These all raise important questions for both scientists and society to answer.

BP Deepwater Horizon disaster

WHAT: It was April 20th, 2010, when an explosion occurred on the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig. The rig caught fire and sank two days later. Eleven men died. The explosion and fire where caused by hydrocarbons (oil) coming up out of the well onto the rig. The well was severed and spilled oil into the Gulf for 87 days.

WHERE: Out in the Gulf of Mexico.

HOW: The committee that investigated the disaster concluded that the main failure was in the cement barrier that let the hydrocarbons flow upward and onto the rig.  The committee states:
The loss of life at the Macondo site on April 20, 2010, and the subsequent pollution of the Gulf of Mexico through the summer of 2010 were the result of poor risk management, last minute changes to plans, failure to observe and respond to critical indicators, inadequate well control response, and insufficient emergency bridge response training by companies and individuals responsible for drilling at the Macondo well and for the operation of the Deepwater Horizon.
Go HERE for the full report.

A cartoon illustrating the parts of the well.

WHY: The lesson to learn from the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster is that for as much as we think we know about the processes involved in drilling for oil there are still unknowns and we are all human. The crew on the rig that night were about to head home after two weeks working on a tough well. When a well pressure test didn't make sense the engineers decided it was a rare phenomenon and didn't raise alarms. We take great risks to get to oil that is deep under water and earth.

WHO: We take great risks in many things that we do but with the large impact the BP oil disaster had on the coastal communities, it makes me wonder who said its OK for the oil companies to take those risks? The government? Geophysicists are usually upfront about the limits of their methods but this disaster makes defining the extent of our knowledge important.

What do you guys think about the disaster? What do think is the one take away for scientists? For society?

Tune in tomorrow for Part 2! Click HERE to go to the second part!

Friday, November 2, 2012

Li-Fi for marine surveys

Li-Fi stands for light fidelity which is a play on Wi-Fi (wireless fidelity or wireless network). This interesting technology could change how data is collected in geophysics.

Geophysics in most applications uses tools to image the interior of the earth. These tools measure some property of the earth like gravity or magnetic field strength. The success of any geophysics survey is limited by the technology used. There are entire companies that just focus on developing better technology for certain types of surveys. It is amazing how complex the instruments have become. One good example of this is seismic surveys conducted in the ocean.

Seismic surveys are used to characterize the subsurface geology. A source is used to make vibrations that travel through the subsurface and bound off of the geologic structures. The receivers record the bounced around waves.

A towed seismic source and receiver array.
The traditional method to conduct surveys is to tow the source and receivers behind a boat. The streamers (lines of receivers) can be kilometers long! This makes it difficult to keep straight lines. Another method used is ocean bottom cables.

Ocean bottom cables waiting to be laid on the ocean floor. 
These cables are laid down by a boat around the area of interest. They are usually put down in parallel lines. These are better than the towed array but the lines cannot be placed underneath an oil platform which is usually where the survey needs to be conducted. Enter ocean bottom nodes (OBN). OBN are geophones that are completely detached from any cable. Inside the cylinderical shape is every instrument needed, batteries, and a way to record the data.

An ocean bottom node from CGGVeritas.
These are placed on the ocean floor by a remotely operation underwater vechicle (ROV). They stay on the ocean floor until the survey is complete which is sometimes months. Then the ROV comes by and picks them up. Once they get back to the surface the data is downloaded from their memory.

A cartoon of an ROV placing nodes on the ocean floor.
The bad part of OBN is that you have to wait until the nodes are back on the surface to see the quality of the data. Problems could occur and you wouldn't know until the whole survey is complete. Better data is always the goal and with the high cost of these surveys it would help if the data could be streamed up to the boat or to the ROV. How might this be accomplished?

There is a idea out there to use light to transmit data exactly like how your wireless internet streams data to your computer or a radio tower communicates with your phone. Harald Haas, a professor from University of Edinburgh, explains and demonstrates the principle in the TED video below.

The basic idea is that an LED light can be turned off and on extremely fast so fast that humans can't see the variation. The light on equals a one and the light off equals a zero. So binary code is being transmitted by the light. The receiver takes that information and turns it into a video or a text or an email. The method still has a ways to go for everyday use with phones or internet but it is looking promising for communicate between nodes and ROVs. The ROV's light could be used to download data from the nodes. This is still just a futuristic idea but it could be a way to make a geophysical tool even more efficient and valuable for surveys.

How do you think data could be retrieved from ocean bottom nodes? Have you heard of any crazy technology that might change the way information is gathered?

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Detection rats

What comes to mind when you think of rats? I think it's safe to say that most of us would shutter and imagine terrible creatures that spread the plague. Well some rats are trying to beat this stereotype by saving lives.
A trained detection rat hard a work.

Unexploded ordinances (UXO) are a world wide problem which I briefly touched upon in the last post on Green Mountain. In the U.S. sites are mostly old army training locations and the dangerous areas are generally known. But this is not the case in most countries. In Africa especially there are huge swaths of land deemed dangerous because one land mine exploded and they do not know how many others could exist. Land is classified as confirmed hazardous area (CHA), suspected hazardous area (SHA), or area with retrictions (AWR). It is difficult to identify which parts of a CHA can be released back to the community without some type of technology based survey. An example of a technology based survey would be a metal detector or time-domain electromagnetics. These techniques cost a lot of money and time. Especially when usually only 10% of the perceived dangerous area contains UXOs.

Enter the rats. Yes, trained rats that find land mines, shells, etc. The reason rats work is because they have highly sensitive smell and they are light enough that they won't trip a land mine.

A rat making a positive identification of a land mine.
The main company training rats is APOPO. They currently have programs in Mozambique, Tanizania, Belgium, Angola, and Thailand. They have found over 2,000 land mines and cleared 3.1 million square meters of land. 

A trainer with his detection rat.
Some times conventional methods just won't do it. Thinking outside the box can find creative solutions that work for a specific situation. Dogs can also find land mines but they require more kennel space, more food, and more time to train. They also don't fair too well in the hot African climate. Rats to the rescue, literally. The rat is making a come back! To learn more check out this CNN article and the APOPO website where you can "adopt" a rat.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Green Mountain's secret

There's a saying that goes "out of sight out of mind". This might be why Green Mountain has been able to hold on to it's secret for so long. What secret does it hold? Where is Green Mountain? What does it have to do with geophysics? All these questions and more are answered in a short video I made. So go ahead make some popcorn and sit back and enjoy!

The story of the unexploded ordinances (UXO) on Green Mountain is echoed around the country and world. My dad and I used to hike a lot at Croft State Park in South Carolina which was another army training camp. Signs are posted on every trail in Croft warning about the dangers of picking any metal object. Green Mountain needs signs telling people of the danger (I didn't find anything warning people!). I am happy though that geophysics can be used to identify the shells and get them out of there. I just wish they could get it done! Have you encountered any unexploded artillery shells, grenades, etc? Do you know the areas in your state that could be dangerous? Go here to find the report on the UXO sites by state in America and it's territories (these are the ones on private or federal land). If you are in a different country just Google "uxo sites" and the name of the country (there's not a global list). Remember if you're out treasure hunting and you find a UXO: Recognize, Retreat, and Report! Don't chance it!

Update: I was out at Green Mountain over the weekend (10.28.2012) and stumbled upon a sign warning of the danger. It was small and not very noticeable but at least they are out there!

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Food (or bumper sticker) for thought

I walk into school every day. (Yup, you can be jealous.) Twice a day I pass by the cars parked in front of my apartment building. For the past couple of months there has been a car with a bumper sticker that bothers me.
Bumper sticker on a car parked by my building.
It’s not that I don’t like bumper stickers. I have put stickers on all (two) of the cars that I've owned. Right now I have a silver palmetto and moon sticker (think South Carolina flag) on my car. I also had the one shown below (before it fell off somewhere :( ). 

Wag More Bark Less bumper sticker.
If you were driving behind me you would probably assume that I'm from South Carolina and that I'm an animal lover who likes it when people are nice. And you would be right. Bumper stickers tell the people driving behind you what you like, where you live, etc. They remind drivers that the big metal boxes on the roads contain people who have lives. Not to mention the chuckle they give you when you’re stuck at a stoplight. One sticker that you can see all over Golden is shown below. I like it because it's sort of nerdy like most of the people in Golden!
Au (Elemental symbol for gold) representing Golden, CO
And I’m not against this person sharing their opinion about drilling with the world. I work in a field that is supported by big oil companies that have drilling project all over the world. My research focuses improving surveys so that drilling can be more successful.

No, I think I’m bothered because this sticker takes a huge issue that is very complex and simplifies it to a black and white fact. I think we all know that the sticker doesn't mean that he or she likes to drilling with his/her power drill or the physical job of drilling out in the field (as we saw here it’s a messy, tough job). The creator of the sticker is from an oil town in Utah and meant it to be a way for people to connect the fuel they put in their car to where it comes from. Check out this article for more information. That's a great thing but I don't think that's the message communicated. I think it is really a sly way to comment on U.S. sources of energy and how they are retrieved like fracking

You can't take this sticker literally. For me at least, it brings to mind all the issues connected to drilling and the way the issues are poorly communicated. I mean things like fracking and the BP Macondo well disaster. As a geophysicist, this sticker urges me to say no! We (the oil industry) know drilling is dangerous and risky but we take precautions and try to be safe. We DON'T just blindly LOVE drilling! I wish there was a bumper sticker that could communicate all the risks and dangers of drilling while also stating the benefits in a way that the reader could take their own position. But as I mull over it more, I conclude that no bumper sticker could ever do that (or be small and readable enough to fit on any car) and that it is MY job as a scientist to put out information that assists decision makers. To communicate with the world and help find the best energy solution that fits the public not the industry. 

And so, in the end, I'm glad that bumper sticker is there every day. Even though most days I just want to replace it with some other "I heart" sticker like this.
Much better than "I heart drilling!" Don't you think?
Or a bumper sticker with this saying on it (Get it? Look at the title of the blog!)

Another good saying for a bumper sticker.
Amazing how a 5 minute walk and a bumper sticker bring can make for a long blog post! These are just my initial thoughts and I don't have it all figured out (obviously). So what do you think? What do your bumper stickers say about you? What does "I heart drilling!" mean to you?

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Burning ice

Did you know there is a type of ice that can burn while someone holds it? Don't believe me? Well, look at the picture below. It's not a trick!

Methane hydrate burning in someone's hands.
Alright so it's not really ice. But it looks and feels like ice. It's really methane hydrate, a specific type of gas hydrate. The word hydrate is a term used in organic chemistry to indicate that a substance contains  water. So a gas hydrate is a gas trapped in a ice-like cage of water molecules. It's really the methane burning while the water melts - not exactly burning ice but that's what it looks like!

A diagram of how gas hydrates form.

In addition to looking super cool when it burns, methane hydrates have some important impacts on energy and climate change. Methane hydrate forms in sediments beneath the ocean floor requiring low temperatures and high pressures to form but its usually located shallower than oil reservoirs. The methane hydrates are a problem for the guys drilling wells because it could blow-up. But methane is also a source of energy (natural gas) and ideally the methane hydrate could increase the amount of domestic energy products but we would need to figure out how to extract it. Methane is very bad for our atmosphere (actually worse than CO2) and if the methane hydrates were to melt and release the methane it could be the tipping point to start an even faster global warming.

In a paper published in a 1996 issue of  Science, one of the most highly regarded scientific journals, Steve Holbrook, Hartley Hoskins, Warren Wood, Ralph Stevens, and Daniel Lizarrale report their findings of the amount of methane hydrates in three wells located in the Blake Ridge area, offshore South Carolina. (I lived in SC for 10 years without knowing we had gas hydrates or any energy near!) This paper came out during the early investigations into methane hydrates and everyone was still unsure how much of this stuff was out there. These guys concluded that the volume of hydrates located in the area offshore of South Carolina had been over estimated and that global estimates could be 3 times too high. 
The location of Blake Ridge offshore of SC.
Methane hydrates are found by acquiring seismic data over the location. A seismic survey is where a boat tows a source (air gun - makes vibrations) and receivers (hydrophones - they listen for the reflected vibrations) over the ocean floor. The methane hydrates are found by the presence of a bottom simulating reflector (BSR) in the data. Basically the difference from the presence of gas hydrates creates a reflection that shows up as a line in the seismic profile. The image below depicts the data from the 1996 paper.
Seismic data of the bottom simulating reflector (BSR) highlighted in blue. 
So in 1996 it looked like estimates for methane hydrates were not going to be as large as originally thought but because they could actually provide us with energy and could cause more climate change the research continued. It was actually written into the Energy Act of 2005 that the research would keep getting funded. And now after years of more research the estimate of  global methane hydrate volume is around 700,000 Tcf (trillion cubic feet) which is enormous when compared to the 200 Tcf of worldwide natural gas reserves! Since 1996 lots of methane hydrate was found in the Arctic permafrost and Gulf of Mexico. The estimates from the seismic data were too simplified and the complexity of gas hydrates is now better understood. The first methane was produced from a well going through the permafrost in northern Canada in 2008. Experiments continue but it looks promising that this form of energy can be produced safely. But the future is never certain and with the worry of releasing too much into the atmosphere it is worth taking the risks to get more energy? What do you guys think? Are you just fascinated with the burning ice?

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Oil drilling: a dirty job

How does working two weeks each month sound? Well if you're working the 9 to 5 job or crazy graduate student hours it might sound like a deal. But the work this kind of  job requires might be a bit beyond what you're willing give. Just look at how tough of a time Mike from Dirty Jobs is having:

Now imagine doing that kind of job on an offshore drilling platform in the middle of the ocean! As we saw in the story of gasoline getting oil to the gas station is an involved process but getting the oil up from deep within the earth is quite the process too. The U.S. imports a large part of our oil from foreign sources (almost 50% in 2010) but we have a large amount of oil in the Gulf of Mexico. This is where offshore drilling platforms are found. In 2006, there were over 4,000 platforms in the gulf according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. An image helps that number hit home.

The 4,000 platforms in the Gulf of Mexico in 2006.
So how do these offshore oil rigs get to the oil? Well, the one video I found that describes the process very clearly is actually for a research vessel trying to drill through Earth's crust which is pretty cool! The process to drill for oil is the same but the drilling stops when the reservoir (big pocket of oil and gas) is reached.

Basically, a vessel or platform positions itself about the location by GPS and then lowers a drill head on a long cable down to the ocean floor. The hole is lined with casing (metal piping) to reinforce it. Once the reservoir is reached then the oil is pumped up and to a holding tank or through a pipeline to shore.

The guys who are out there on the rigs work 2 weeks straight often with 12 hour shifts (they are paid pretty well though). Fortunately the platforms aren't just for business. They usually have a movie theater and gym. This article describes the rig life in more detail. Sleeping in tiny bunks and braving windy weather are just some of the downsides of the job.

The process to reach oil thousands of feet below the ocean isn't easy. It's amazing to me the technology involved to get the precious resource out. As with my brief story of gasoline, there is a lot I'm leaving out so this will fit into a blog post. Read this longer story of the complete oil drilling process over at HowStuffWorks for more information. If you think you can brave the waves, tiny room, and 12 hour days then kudos to you because I definitely couldn't do it!

Monday, September 24, 2012

The story of gas(oline)

Have you ever been filling up your car at the gas station and wondered where that smelly liquid comes from? When it costs an arm and a leg to fill up the tank then it’s got to be a long, expensive process, right? Well, I admit that I generally am watching the numbers next to the $ increase rapidly instead of thinking about how gas traveled to get to my car’s tank.

But it is a very important story with impacts to our country’s economy, national security, and energy future. Not to mention the personal impacts when you thought you could make those last 30 miles with the empty light on because, hey, Jeremy did it in Top Gear (go to 8:00 in the video for the real drama).

Watch Part 1 and Part 2.

Alright, back to gasoline. Here is the whole story in picture flowchart form. The very, very beginning is not pictured because black goo turning blacker doesn’t lend to a good picture. (I'm referring to animal and plant material slowly being compressed to create oil.) I start with an image I created because I couldn't find any good ones on Google.

Geophysics combined with geology leads to a well being drilled and oil extracted.

OK, so now in more detail. The story of gasoline starts with crude oil (made out of hydrocarbons; crude because it is unrefined) deep in the earth. We extract oil on land and from under the ocean. Let’s focus on the oil taken from beneath the ocean, say in the Gulf of Mexico, a place full of oil. The first step is to find it! This type of treasure hunting involves large ships running different types of surveys. Most likely a seismic survey (sends out vibrations and listens for them to come back) and maybe electromagnetic survey (sends out electrical energy which goes down into the earth and is recorded at a receiver on the seafloor) are run over an area in the ocean.  The data is processed by geophysicists who create a model of the subsurface. Then geophysicists consult with geologists to make sure the model make sense. An oil company then spends millions or billions of dollars to drill down to wear the oil is located (more on that technology in a later post). The oil is extracted and sent to a refinery where it is filtered into gasoline as well as other products like diesel fuel and kerosene. The refining process basically separates the oil by different boiling points with gasoline having a lower boiling point than kerosene or diesel fuel. Finally the gasoline is put into a tanker and delivered to your local gas station. The End.

So what are you actually paying for at the pump? Well, I had the same question and luckily for us the U.S. Energy Information Administration broke it down.

The breakdown of where the money goes for a gallon of gas.
I know this was a long story but it is an important one. This general story of gasoline glossed over some of the important issues behind this controversial energy product but it is a starting place for more detailed posts about some of the processes involved to get oil from below the ocean turned into gasoline for our cars.

I'll still always watch the numbers next to the $ when I fill up my car with gas but now I'll also think about the journey the oil took to get to the gas station and where my money is going.

Monday, September 17, 2012

I break for science

The name of this post comes from a tweet - the tweet of a six wheeled four eyed Martian rover, Curiosity.

Curiosity's self-portrait
Does Curiosity remind you of any other adorable robots?

WALL-E from Pixar's movie of the same name.
Curiosity, like WALL-E, is a pretty funny machine. On September 10th, the rover said “They see me rovin': Check out my dubs planted firmly on the Martian surface.” You can follow the Curiosity’s tweets here.

The purpose of sending the rover to Mars is to discover if the planet ever was hospitable to life. Curiosity has scientific instruments to test the soil and rocks. I’m talking cool stuff like a laser to shoot at rocks. Read all about the specific instruments here

Mars has many interesting features that have captured the attention of geophysicists for decades. The planet is almost perfectly divided in half with the southern hemisphere 1-3km higher in elevation than the northern hemisphere. It’s called the Mars dichotomy (big word for division). Mars also has a giant crack in it called the Valles Marineris which is much larger than the Grand Canyon on Earth.

The Mars dichotomy shown by change in elevation from north to south.

Valles Marineris shown as the blue in this colored image.
The explanation of these features could help us understand more about our own planet. Curiosity is assisting geophysicists by investigating how much water is in the soil and rocks of Mars. The results will help narrow down the possible models for how Mars formed.

The treasure-trove of information that Curiosity is sending back to Earth will fuel scientists for years and hopefully inspire kids and adults alike to imagine the wonders Mars holds.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Obama came to town

The President of the United States visited Golden on Thursday. Our little town was excited to have him. (Personally, I was a little frustrated because all the traffic meant I didn’t have enough time to sneak a mountain biking ride on North Table.) Colorado, as a swing state, has seen a lot of President Obama lately but he is only the second President to personally campaign in Golden. The other was Ulysses Grant!

President Obama speaking in Golden, CO. Check out the "M" behind him!
Now I wasn't there but I did think about what I would want to hear and I was surprised when I read about his speech. I'm not going to get into politics in this post but I do what to talk  about what Obama didn’t say.

He didn't say anything about energy or science or R&D research & development funding! Now, I know, Obama was addressing the general public but, come on, he was just blocks away from a purely science and engineering school, Colorado School of Mines, and a couple miles from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in a state that has a large amount of natural gas!

But the lack of talk about energy, science, and R&D research & development funding isn’t something new in this campaign for both parties. The blog Science-Insider highlighted last Wednesday a report comparing the technology innovation policies supported by Obama and Romney released from The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation. The nonpartisan think-tank concludes that neither party has it completely right. I was happy to see the sentence below appear in the conclusion:
"The candidates’ proposals on science and technology, innovation, broadband and telecommunications, energy, etc. documented in this report represent an important first step, but it’s time for these issues to receive far greater attention in the presidential contest and beyond.”
The bottom line is that whoever becomes the next President of the United States will affect the direction of research and money in science and more specifically geophysics. Scientists (this includes me) would like to think that politics don’t affect research but that just isn’t true. The direction of energy and science matters and we need to talk about it more!

President Obama, the next time you come to Golden, could we please talk some energy and science? Please! It's something I treasure!

What do you guys think? What science topic do you think is important in this election? Do the candidates need to define their energy plans better?

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

There's Treasure Everywhere

Hello and welcome to Treasure Hunting! My name is Ali Knaak. I am a graduate student working and playing in Golden, Colorado. This blog is a project for my Advanced Science Communication class. The goal is to mix some science with good stories, communication, and discussion to hopefully produce an interesting, engaging blog.

Do you remember as a kid going outside and exploring the backyard? When I was a kid I would explore everything from the nearby creek to dirt piles left from construction. My mom tells me how I would spend hours outside collecting “gems” from the landscaping rocks and bring a big pile inside to keep. (Yep, I had a rock polisher.) I still have some of the rocks I picked up as a child and I still have a yearning to explore. It’s the excitement of a new discovery and finding an answer to a question. I think everyone still has a little kid in them wanting to go discover something. We are hunting for treasure.

Calvin & Hobbes say it best. Source:
This blog is about treasure hunting – both as an idea and a practice. I think treasure hunting sums up a lot of what we are trying to do in the world. There’s the philosophical idea that everyone is hunting for some treasure but there is also the relentless search for new caches of diamonds, metals, oil, etc. One way that these treasures are found is geophysics. Geophysics uses physical properties of the earth and/or the target to locate and characterize the target and area. An everyday example of geophysics is taking a metal detector out to the beach to find lost rings and watches. Geophysics is connected to many different, relevant areas like gas, fracking, locating unexploded bombs, and finding water such to name a few. My hope is to make these connections more apparent because it will help me understand the goals of my graduate school research in the context of the world and hopefully help you understand how you affect this area of science and how it affects you. I will be exploring these things through this blog. So join me on this journey. Check back in for another post sometime this week.

For day let's just remember: There's Treasure Everywhere!